TEMPE, Ariz. — Fifty-three weeks ago, Jen Welter was teaching aerobics and running boot camps in Dallas while coaching linebackers and special teams for a men’s professional football league.
She was working at both in relative anonymity.
On Thursday, the one-year anniversary of Welter's introduction to the world as a training camp intern for the Arizona Cardinals — the first female coach in the NFL — Welter was in Los Angeles to speak on a panel about the influence of role models in sports at the Geena Davis Institute.
Life has certainly changed for Welter.
“It’s completely different,” Welter, 38, told ESPN. “I did a little bit of speaking then, though I enjoyed it, and now that’s the majority of my business is speaking. So it’s completely different.”
Welter’s month-long training camp internship with the Cardinals last season didn’t land her a job in the NFL, but it put her on the map as a pioneer for women in sports. It also made her the face of women’s football.
By Welter’s estimate, she was on the road at least half of the past year. She spoke on panels, made media appearances and trekked to small towns across America and Canada to spread the gospel of women in football. She gave a speech in College Station, Texas, for the American Heart Association and traveled to Regina, Canada, to give a speech and put on a clinic for the football-crazed city that boasts more than 3,000 flag football players, 287 of whom are girls.
Instead of rubbing shoulders with her clients as a personal trainer, she spent the year hobnobbing with politicians, celebrities and athletes, including Billie Jean King and Cam Newton. The governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, called Welter to personally invite her to speak about equal pay. She was invited to be part of the White House’s United States of Women campaign, through which she met President Obama. Welter spoke with King at the June summit, after the president, First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
Her media blitz after her internship and continued media appearances have made her a minor celebrity. She gets stopped for autographs and has been approached by NFL players simply asking to shake her hand.
During a cocktail reception the night before her speech at rhe White House, Welter remembered that Kathleen Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s daughter-in-law, approached her.
“She walked up to me, and she said, ‘How does it feel to be the coolest woman in every room you ever walk into?’” Welter said. “I looked at her like, ‘Is she talking to me? She must have me confused with somebody else.’”
During her two trips to Washington, Welter also befriended White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett.
“Jen's extraordinary talent, coupled with a competitive spirit and tenacious determination, have enabled her, against all odds, to crash through one of the toughest glass ceilings when she became the first female NFL coach,” Jarrett said. “She is a terrific role model for all those who dream of what should be — not just what is.”
Welter sold her home in Dallas before moving to Arizona last July, even though she was unsure of what the future might hold. Her new home base is with family in Florida. It’s the one place she can stay for a night or a week or a month and they won’t mind, she said.
Welter stayed true to her football roots the past year and traveled back to Dallas to rejoin her former team, the Dallas Elite. She played in five regular-season games and the playoffs, which included a two-point loss in the championship game.
"Those are my sisters, and if they say, ‘Hey, we need you,’ you’re going to do it,” Welter said. “That definitely intensified my road schedule.”
All the attention has been a career and bank account boost, but it hasn’t led to a full-time job. For now, Welter is comfortable with that. She has put two causes close to her — women’s football and women in sports — on her shoulders and tries to share her experience with as many people as possible.
Nancy Lieberman, the former women’s basketball star who became the second female to coach in the NBA when she was hired by the Sacramento Kings last season, told Welter that she doesn’t need all 32 teams to want her. She needs just one.
Snoop Dogg, who befriended Welter at a Wound Warriors Project football game years back, said Welter needs to stay on course and believes her break will come in due time.
“I think the timing is right,” Snoop Dogg told ESPN. “The world we live in right now, we’re more understanding and accepting. The locker rooms have a different mindset now.”
Welter’s brief experience in the NFL, coupled with her newfound celebrity, has made her a role model for younger generations of women looking to get into sports, specifically football. As Welter progressed through the football ranks, she didn’t think the NFL was a possibility. Now, it is reality.
“You’re showing people a dream that wasn’t even possible. You’re giving them permission to dream bigger,” Welter said. “That’s what I love so much about going and talking to people is that this hustle, this life, there’s something bigger — even if you can’t always see it — and that’s a great gift to give people.”
Deborah Slaner Larkin, the CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said Welter will be remembered as one of the few who opened a door for women in sports.
“Once that door is open, it’s going to open wider, and then we’re going to keep climbing the stairs until we break the glass ceiling, and then we’ll be the head coach,” Larkin said. “But this is a very good first step.”